You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

First
She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"
Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Second

Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field
Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Third
Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.

National Poetry Month and the Head of a Dead Cat

I was standing at my kitchen counter before dawn last week, eating Greek yogurt and listening to NPR, as is my daily feel-good liberal ritual, when the newscaster offered up an interesting tidbit that made me pause. For most people, this news would have passed un-reacted to, but from me it elicited a good old-fashioned knee slap. “Well hey, what do you know?!” I said to the empty room. “April is National Poetry Month!” I was a little bit embarrassed that this had escaped my attention, since I spent two years and many thousands of good dollars earning a masters of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Though I may be excused, perhaps, in light of the fact that I also was unaware of Easter’s approach until it was actually Easter (“What’s with all the plastic eggs in the neighbor’s yard?”). Likewise with Passover (“What’s with all the lamb’s blood on the neighbor’s doorpost?”). Still, I’ve had a much closer relationship with poetry than I have with any organized religion.

A masters in poetry is a rare thing, but for all its rareness, it isn’t particularly valued by society at large. Aside from my professors and classmates in the poetry program, I can’t recall ever meeting another person who saw fit to invest in an advanced poetry degree. No, the (sad?) truth is, poetry today is regarded as either easy, rhyming drivel of the sort found in self-help literature and greeting cards, or as an opaque, elitist exercise enjoyable only for those with afore-mentioned degrees. Even in the age of the Internet, where a premium is put on bite-sized content chunks, the imminently digestible stanzas of contemporary poetry are rarely shared. My Facebook friends quote movies, songs, and the odd snippet of philosophy, but rarely do I catch a sonnet, an ode, or even a rhymed couplet ticking by on the feed. (The haiku and the limerick are the most notable counterexamples, but these are typically made to suit less-than-honorable ends.)

Maybe it’s because poetry, really good poetry, if I may be so bold as to judge, doesn’t yield easily to passing glances and cursory interpretation. You have to be in the right state of mind if you want to get the meat out of the poetic nut, and willing to work at it. The poetic form is unfamiliar; it’s not how people talk. Like a magic show, a poem asks the audience to suspend its disbelief. Poetry is not like a piece of fiction, riddled with cliffhangers, or a movie with a simple, arc-shaped plot — it is at once more abstract and more complex, full of quantum possibility. Poetry requires the reader to empty his or her cup, metaphorically speaking, before learning what the poem has to offer. In short, there are so many barriers between the average reader and a poem, it’s no wonder we need a specially designated month just to remind us that poems are out there.

And to make matters worse, not all poems are good. Just as most anythings are crappy, so are most attempts at poetry failures, in that they don’t communicate with even the most ideal, receptive reader. Most poems are full of unexamined clichés and easy sentiments borrowed from the greeting cards mentioned earlier. A good and potent poem really is a rare thing, even rarer than an MFA in poetry.

Sometimes when I think of poetry and its paradoxical value, I think of the story of Sozen, a Chinese Zen master and poet. Sozen claimed the head of a dead cat was the most valuable thing in the world, because “no one can name its price.” The idea being that things of true value cannot be sold or purchased. The value of a poem to the human spirit is much like the value of Nature, with a capital “N”. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature”, “The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape… . This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.”

In the end, National Poetry Month, initiated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, feels a bit like wishful thinking. As if a month in poesy’s honor would rekindle the passions of readers everywhere. And yet… . And yet my own poetic inclinations, long in a state of suspended animation, have begun to stir. (It is fitting that National Poetry Month would be in T.S. Eliot’s “cruelest month.”) I think they only needed an excuse. And in a way, any holiday or day of recognition is really no more than that: an excuse to think about ourselves, our friends and family, our countrymen and women, God or gods, or the universe in a different way. After three-hundred plus days a year of routine and rigmarole, it can hardly hurt to pause and appraise things from a new angle. So, in that way, National Poetry Month is a success, at least for this one-time poet who has drifted away from verse.

I get the feeling that now it’s time to dampen the ol’ quill and start scratching away on brittle parchment once again. Or maybe it’s just time to take up some of the many books of poetry I’ve accumulated over the years. In books, I’ve found, the words are static, but the perspective of the reader is different with every read. With this in mind, I’m excited to revisit my old favorites and see how their words sound to me now: Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Yeats, Keats, Bishop, Pound… . I expect I’ll find new and inestimably valuable things in their metaphors and meter.

If you have a poetry collection on your shelf, I can only implore you to select a book long unopened and begin to read. If you have no poetry at your fingertips and no dollars in your purse, turn to the Internet, wellspring of free content. Head to poets.org and look to the right side of the page — the list of popular contemporary and historical poets is as good a place to start as any. I can almost guarantee you will find great worth in their words, at least as much as in the head of a dead cat, the most valuable thing in the world.